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Top row left to right: 157 BC Roman Republic, A.D 73 Vespasian, A.D 161 Marcus Aurelius, A.D 194 Septimius Severus;
Second row left to right: A.D 199 Caracalla, A.D 200 Julia Domna, A.D 219 Elagabalus, A.D 236 Maximinus Thrax

In the Roman currency system, the dēnārius ( pronunciation: /deː.ˈnaː.rɪ.ʊs/) ; plural: dēnāriī (pronunciation: /deː.ˈnaː.rɪ.iː/) was a small silver coin first minted about 211 BC during the Second Punic War.[1] It became the most common coin produced for circulation but was slowly debased in weight and silver content until its replacement by the double denarius, called the antoninianus, early in the 3rd century AD. The word dēnārius is derived from the Latin dēnī "containing ten", as its value was 10 assēs, although in the middle of the 2nd century BC it was recalibrated so that it was now worth sixteen assēs or four sēstertiī. It is the origin of several modern words such as the currency name dinar; it is also the origin for the common noun for money in Italian denaro, in Slovene denar, in Portuguese dinheiro, and in Spanish dinero. Its symbol is X̶; a letter x with stroke.


A predecessor of the denarius was first struck in 267 BC, five years before the first Punic War[2] with an average weight of 6.81 grams, or 148 of a Roman pound. Contact with the Greeks prompted a need for silver coinage in addition to the bronze currency that the Romans were using during that time, the predecessor of the denarius was a Greek-styled silver coin, very similar to the didrachm and drachma struck in Metapontion[citation needed] and other Greek cities in southern Italy. These coins were inscribed for Rome but closely resemble their Greek counterparts, they were most likely used for trade purposes and were seldom used in Rome.

The first distinctively Roman silver coin appeared around 226 BC.[3] Classic historians sometimes called these coins dēnāriī in the past, but they are classified by modern numismatists as quadrīgātī, which is derived from the quadrīgæ, or four-horse chariot, on the reverse, and which with a two-horse chariot or biga was the prototype for the most common designs used on Roman silver coins for the next 150 years.[4][5][6]

Rome overhauled its coinage around 211 BC and introduced the denarius alongside a short-lived denomination called the victoriatus, this denarius contained an average 4.5 grams, or 172 of a Roman pound of silver. It formed the backbone of Roman currency throughout the Roman republic.[7]

The denarius began to undergo slow debasement toward the end of the republican period. Under the rule of Augustus, (63 BC-AD 14) its silver content fell to 3.9 grams (a theoretical weight of 184 of a Roman pound). It remained at nearly this weight until the time of Nero (AD 37-68), when it was reduced to 196 of a pound, or 3.4 grams. Debasement of the coin's silver content continued after Nero. Later Roman emperors reduced its content to 3 grams around the late third century.[8]

The value at its introduction was 10 asses, giving the denarius its name, which translates as "containing ten"; in about 141 BC, it was re-tariffed at 16 asses, to reflect the decrease in weight of the as. The denarius continued to be the main coin of the Roman Empire until it was replaced by the antoninianus in the middle of the third century, the last issuance of this coin occurred in bronze form by Aurelian, between AD 270 and 275, and in the first years of the reign of Diocletian. For more details, see 'Denarius', in A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins, by John R. Melville-Jones (1990).[9][10]

Debasement and evolution[edit]

The denarius has a link from the Roman times to the British penny and US 1 cent piece (colloquially called 'penny').

Year Event Weight Purity Note
267 BC Predecessor 6.81g  ? 1/48 pound. Equals 10 asses giving the denarius its name, which translates as "containing ten". . The original copper coinage was weight based, and was related to the Roman pound, the libra, which was about 325 g, the basic copper coin, the as, was to weigh 1 Roman pound. This was a cast coin of some size and subdivisions of the as were used, as will be described later, the copper coins are of note because the ghost of this unit is to be found in the British monetary system, which still uses the pound, abbreviated as £.
211BC Introduction 4.55g 95-98% 1/72 pound. Denarius first struck. According to Pliny, it was established that the denarius should be given in exchange for ten pounds of bronze, the quinarius for five pounds, and the sestertius for two-and-a-half. - But when the as was reduced in weight to one ounce, it was established that the denarius should be given in exchange for sixteen asses, the quinarius for eight, and the sestertius for four. And though the reason for its being so called no longer existed, yet the denarius retained its original name, with respect to the weight of the denarius, it appears, also according to Pliny and other writers, that there were, in the ancient libra, eighty-four denarii.
200BC Debasement 3.9g 95-98% 1/84 pound.
141BC Debasement 3.9g 95-98% 1/84 pound. Retarrifed to equal 16 as due to the decrease in weight of the as.
44BC Debasement 3.9g 95-98% Julius Caesar Reigned. Set the denarius at 3.9g. legionary (professional soldier) pay was doubled to 225 denarii per year.
14AD-37AD 3.9g 97.5-98% Tiberius slightly improved the fineness as he gathered his infamous hoard of 675 million denarii.
64-68AD Debasement 3.41g 93.5% 1/96 pound. This more closely matched the Greek Drachm; in 64, Nero reduced the standard of the aureus to 45 to the Roman pound (7.20 grs.) and of the denarius to 96 to the Roman pound (3.30 grs.). He also lowered the denarius to 94.5% fine. Successive emperors lowered the fineness of the denarius; in 180 Commodus reduced its weight by one-eighth or 108 to the pound.
85-107AD Debasement 3.41g 93.5% Reduction in silver content under Domitian
148-161AD Debasement 3.41g 83.5%
193-235AD Debasement 3.41g 83.5% Severan emperors (193-235) steadily debased the denarius from a standard of 78.5% to 50% fine. In 212 Caracalla reduced the weight of the aureus from 45 to 50 to the Roman pound, they also coined aes from a bronze alloy with a heavy lead admixture and discontinued fractional denominations below the as. In 215 Caracalla introduced the antoninianus (5.1 grs.; 52% fine) a double denarius, containing 80% of the silver of two denarii. The coin invariably carried the radiate imperial portrait. Elagabalus demonetized the coin in 219, but the senatorial emperors Pupienus and Balbinus in 238 revived the antoninianus as the principal silver denomination which successive emperors reduced to a miserable billon coin (2.60 grs.; 2% fine).
241AD Debasement 3.41g 48%
274AD Double Denarius 3.41g 5% In 274, the emperor Aurelian reformed the currency and his denominations remained in use until the great recoinage of Diocletian in 293. Aurelian struck a radiate aurelianianus of improved weight (84 to the Roman pound) and fineness (5% fine) that was tariffed at five notational denarii communes ("common denarii" or d.c.). The denomination carried on the reverse the numerals XXI (or in Greek KA) to denote the coin as equal to 20 sestertii (or 5 d.c.). The aureus (minted at 50 or 60 the Roman pound) was exchanged at rates of 600 to 1,000 d.c., equivalent to 120 to 200 aurelianiani. Rare fractions of billion denarii, and of bronze sestertii and asses were also coined. Simultaneously, Aurelian reorganized the provincial mint at Alexandria, and he minted an improved Alexandrine tetradrachma that might have been tariffed at par with the aurelianianus.

The emperor Tacitus in 276 briefly doubled the silver content of the aurelianianus and halved its tariffing to 2.5 d.c. (hence coins of Antioch and Tripolis (in Phoenicia) carry the value marks X.I), but Probus (276-282) immediately returned the aurelianianus to the standard and tariffing of Aurelian, and was the official tariffing down to the reform of Diocletian in 293.

735AD Novus denarius (new penny) Pepin the Short (r. 751–768), the first king of the Carolingian dynasty and father of Charlemagne, minted the novus denarius ("new penny"), 240 pennies minted from one Carolingian pound. So a single coin contained 21 grains of silver, around AD 755 Pepin's Carolingian Reform established the European monetary system, which can be expressed as: 1 pound = 20 shillings = 240 pennies. Originally the pound was a weight of silver rather than a coin, and from a pound of pure silver 240 pennies were struck, the Carolingian Reform restored the silver content of a penny that was already in circulation and was the direct descendant of the Roman denarius. The shilling was a reference to the solidi, the money of account that prevailed in Europe before the Carolingian Reform, the solidi money of account originated from the Byzantine gold coin that was the foundation of the international monetary system for more than 500 years. The shilling acted to bridge the new monetary system to the old, an important role because debts contracted prior to the Reform were defined in solidi, for three centuries following the reform, the only coin minted in Europe was the silver penny. Shillings and pounds were ghost monies—convenient shorthand for keeping accounts, but not actual coins. Rather than writing down 2,400 pennies, it was easier to write or say 10 pounds, and rather than write or say 36 pennies it was easier to write or say 3 shillings, the silver penny was the linchpin of the Carolingian system, but major transactions required unwieldy numbers of pennies, counting into the tens or even hundreds of thousands, and the pound and shilling were handy measures of pennies. In addition to establishing the Carolingian monetary system, the Reform also reduced the number of mints, strengthened royal authority over the mints, and provided for uniform design of coins. All coins bore the ruler’s name, initial, or title, signifying royal sanction of the quality of the coins. Charlemagne spread the Carolingian system throughout Western Europe, the Italian lira and the French livre were derived from the Latin word for pound. Until the French Revolution, the unit of account in France was the livre, which equaled 20 sols or sous, which in turn equaled 12 deniers, during the Revolution the franc replaced the livre, and Napoleon’s conquest spread the franc to Switzerland and Belgium. The Italian unit of account has remained the lira, and in Britain the pound-shilling-penny relationship survived until 1971. Even in England the pennies were eventually debased, leaving 240 pennies representing substantially less than a pound of silver and the concept of a pound as a money unit of account became divorced from a pound-weight of silver, after the breakup of the Carolingian Empire pennies debased much faster, particularly in Mediterranean Europe, and in 1172 Genoa began minting a silver coin equal to four pennies. Rome, Florence, and Venice followed with coins of denominations greater than a penny, and late in the twelfth century Venice minted a silver coin equal to 24 pennies. By the mid-thirteenth century Florence and Genoa were minting gold coins, effectively ending the reign of the silver penny (denier, denarius) as the only circulating coin in Europe.
757-796AD Penny Offa, king of Mercia, minted and introduced to England a penny of 22.5 grains of silver. The coin’s designated value, however, was that of 24 troy grains of silver (one pennyweight, or 1/240 of a troy pound, or about 1.56 grams), with the difference being a premium attached by virtue of the minting into coins (seigniorage). The penny led to the term 'penny weight'. 240 actual pennies (22.5 grains; minus the 1.5 grain for the seigniorage) weighed only 5400 troy grains, known as a Saxon pound and later known as the tower pound, a unit used only by mints. The tower pound was abolished in the sixteenth century. However, 240 pennyweights (24 grains) made one troy pound of silver in weight, and the monetary value of 240 pennies also became known as a "pound", the silver penny remained the primary unit of coinage for about 500 years.
790AD Penny 1.76g 95-96% Charlemagne new penny with smaller diameter but greater weight. Average weight of 1.7, but ideal theoretical mass of 1.76 grams. Purity is from 95% to 96%
1527AD Penny 1.58g 99% Tower pound of 5,400 grains abolished and replaced by the Troy pound of 5,760 grains.
1158AD Penny 92.5% The purity of 92.5% silver (i.e., sterling silver) was instituted by Henry II in 1158 with the “Tealby Penny” — a hammered coin.
Sixteenth century Penny By the sixteenth century it contained about a third the silver content of a proper troy 24 grain pennyweight.
1915AD Penny A penny was worth around 1/6 what it had been worth during the Middle Ages. British government sources suggest that prices have risen over 61-fold since 1914.

Comparisons and silver content[edit]

Flavia Domitilla, wife of Vespasian and mother of Titus and Domitian.

It is difficult to give even rough comparative values for money from before the 20th century, as the range of products and services available for purchase was different. Classical historians often say that in the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire (~27BC) the daily wage for an unskilled laborer and common soldier was 1 denarius (with no tax deductions) or about US$2.8 in bread.[11] During the republic (509–27 BC),[when?] legionary pay was 112.5 denarii per year (0.3/day), later doubled by Julius Caesar to 225 denarii (0.6/day), with soldiers having to pay for their own food and arms.[citation needed] Centurions received considerably higher pay; under Augustus, the lowest rank of centurion was paid 3,750 denarii and the highest rank, 15,000 denarii.[citation needed]

The silver content of the denarius under the Roman Empire (After Nero) was about 50 grains, 3.24 grams, or 110 (0.105ozt) troy ounce. On June 6, 2011, this was about US$3.62 in value if the silver were 0.999 pure.

The fineness of the silver content varied with political and economic circumstances, from a purity of greater than 90% silver in the first century A.D., the denarius fell to under 60% purity by the end of the second century A.D., and plummeted to 5% purity by the end of the third century A.D.[12] By the reign of Gallienus, the antoninianus was a copper coin with a thin silver wash.[13]

By comparison, a laborer earning the minimum wage in the United States in January 2014 made US$58 for an 8-hour day, before taxes (utilizing the mode value of $7.25 per hour, which was true then in 20 states) and a labourer earning the minimum wage in the United Kingdom in 2014 made GBP£52 for an 8-hour day, before taxes.[14][15]


In the final years of the first century BC Tincomarus the ruler of part of Britain started issuing coins that appear to have been made from melted down Denarii.[16]The coins of Eppillus, issued around Calleva Atrebatum during the same time period, appear to have derived design elements from various dēnāriī such as those of Augustus and M. Volteius.[17][16]

Even after the denarius was no longer regularly issued, it continued to be used as a unit of account, and the name was applied to later Roman coins in a way that is not understood, the Arabs who conquered large parts of the land that once belonged to the Eastern Roman Empire issued their own gold dinar. The lasting legacy of the denarius can be seen in the use of "d" as the abbreviation for the British penny before 1971,[18] it survived in France as the name of a coin, the denier. The denarius also survives in the common Arabic name for a currency unit, the dinar used from pre-Islamic times, and still used in several modern Arabic-speaking nations, the major currency unit in former Principality of Serbia, Kingdom of Serbia and former Yugoslavia was dinar, and it is still used in present-day Serbia. The Macedonian currency denar is also derived from the Roman denarius, the Italian word denaro, the Spanish word dinero, the Portuguese word dinheiro, and the Slovene word denar, all meaning money, are also derived from Latin denarius.


The gold aureus seems to have been a "currency of account," a denomination not commonly seen in daily transactions due to its high value. Numismatists think that the aureus was used to pay bonuses to the legions at the accession of new emperors, it was valued at 25 denarii.[citation needed]

1 gold aureus = 2 gold quinarii = 25 silver denarii = 50 silver quinarii = 100 bronze sestertii = 200 bronze dupondii = 400 copper asses = 800 copper semisses = 1600 copper quadrantes

Use in the Bible[edit]

The denarius has been commonly identified as the tribute penny held by Jesus in the Render unto Caesar passage Matthew 22:15-22 and Mark 12:13-17.

In the New Testament, the gospels refer to the denarius as a day's wage for a common laborer (Matthew 20:2,[19] John 12:5).[20] In the Book of Revelation, during the Third Seal: Black Horse, a choinix (or quart) of wheat and three quarts of barley were each valued at one denarius.[21] Bible scholar Robert H. Mounce says the price of the wheat and barley as described in the vision appears to be ten to twelve times their normal cost in ancient times.[22] Revelation describes a condition where basic goods are sold at greatly inflated prices. Thus, the black horse rider depicts times of deep scarcity or famine but not of starvation, the English word "quart" translates choinix. Apparently, a choinix of wheat was the daily ration of one adult. Thus, in the conditions pictured by Revelation 6 the normal income for a working-class family would buy enough food for only one person, the less costly barley would feed three people for one day's wages.

In popular culture[edit]

The silver denarius is one of the two main units of currency in Rick Riordan's The Heroes of Olympus series, along with the golden drachma.

"Denar" was a common unit of money in the Xena and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys television shows. Occasionally it appeared as a large silver coin. An example of its use was in the Hercules episode, The March to Freedom, where it can be heard in the bidding at a slave auction.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Crawford, Michael H. (1974). Roman Republican Coinage, Cambridge University Press, 2 Volumes. ISBN 0-521-07492-4
  2. ^ A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, William Smith, D.C.l., LL, D., John Murray, London 1875 Pg 393, 394
  3. ^ The Numismatic Circular, Volume 8-9, Spink & Son, 1899-1900 Piccadilly West, London
  4. ^ Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins. Oxford University Press, New York 1994.
  5. ^ As the Romans Did, Jo-Ann Shelton. Oxford University Press, New York 1998
  6. ^ Plutarch's Lives, Vol 2, John Langhorne, DD, William Langhorne, AM, London 1813
  7. ^ The New Deal in Old Rome, HJ Haskell, Alfred K Knoff New York 1939
  8. ^ Ancient coin collection 3Wayne G Sayles Pg 21-22
  9. ^ "Aurelian, Roman Imperial Coinage reference, Thumbnail Index". Retrieved 24 August 2006. 
  10. ^ "Aurelian Æ Denarius. Rome mint. IMP AVRELIANVS AVG, laureate, draped & cuirassed bust right". Archived from the original on 12 June 2006. Retrieved 24 August 2006. 
  11. ^ Buying Power of Ancient Coins (amount has been adjusted for inflation)
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-11-28. Retrieved 2015-12-01. 
  13. ^ Katsari, Constantina (2002). "The Concept of Inflation in the Roman Empire". Retrieved 2006-12-06. 
  14. ^ "United States Department of Labor--Wage and Hour Division (WHD)". Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  15. ^ "National Minimum Wage rates". Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  16. ^ a b De Jersey, Philip (1996). Celtic Coinage in Britain. Shire Publications. pp. 29–30. ISBN 0-7478-0325-0. 
  17. ^ Bean, Simon C (1994). "The coinage of Eppilus". The coinage of Atrebates and Regni (PDF) (Ph.D.). University of Nottingham. pp. 341–347. Retrieved 14 July 2016. 
  18. ^ English Coinage 600–1900 by C.H.V. Sutherland 1973 ISBN 0-7134-0731-X p.10
  19. ^ "Matthew 20:2 NIV - He agreed to pay them a denarius". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  20. ^ "Jn 12:5; NIV - "Why wasn’t this perfume sold ...". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  21. ^ Revelation 6:6
  22. ^ The New International Commentary on the New Testament, "The Book of Revelation," p. 155)

External links[edit]